Spittin' & Poppin' Bass
July 12, 2012
Poppers, chuggers, spitters. Call 'em as you see 'em. They've emerged as the hottest topwater baits of our time. And oh the fun of them. Only a tournament head wouldn't prefer to catch a 5-pounder on a topwater lure over a 7-pounder on a crankbait. Consider scenarios such as these:
TIMING THE POPPER BITE
Spring -- The attraction of poppers to largemouths in spring seems to stem from the fish's natural inclination to move into shallow cover-filled bays that warm fast in the early spring sun. Fish bask near the surface, apparently soaking up the warmth to boost their metabolism. They're easily spooked and not aggressive, but will softly engulf a lure floating on the surface, or gently twitched near a stump or over a weed clump.
Note, however, that this fast charge into shallow bays is characteristic only for largemouth bass of the north-central region. Farther south, the progression into thin water is gradual. Bass pro Danny Joe Humphrey, a longtime topwater expert from North Carolina, considers 60F the threshold for poppin' action in mid-south reservoirs like Buggs Island. Humphrey, who markets several Japanese-made poppers in the Viva Series, prefers subtle poppers like the Viva Pencil Popper prior to the spawn.
Fall -- At the other end of the seasonal scale, poppers can be the best bait to throw late in fall, once vegetation has thinned and bass hold among shallow wood and remaining clumps of vegetation for their final meals before ice covers the lake. Smaller poppers, as well as floating minnowbaits consistently take largemouths at water temperatures down to about 45F.
Summer -- Admittedly, though, poppers and chuggers are in their prime from the Spawn Period through the Post-Summer Period, the period of the In-Fisherman calendar that begins when water temperatures first decline in late summer and ends at Fall Turnover. The food web is in high gear during midsummer, and that's when bass do the bulk of their annual feeding. Few baits draw strikes from active bass as surely as poppers.
The fast skittering, spitting retrieve that's the standard for summer daytime fishing in impoundments imitates the sight and sound of panicked shad. For when bass and predators sense that other fish are feeding, they want to join the feast.
During summer, poppers also appeal to largemouth and smallmouth bass that hold in cover but are ready to feed opportunistically. In rivers, all species of black bass choose holding positions that give them shelter from current but allow them to scan the water moving by, to pick off potential prey. During low water in summer, which also brings clear water, smallmouths hold by boulders and deadhead logs in the main channel.
Big smallmouths bit best when the popper drifted alongside the cover object, and then was popped and allowed to settle. In the clear water, the bass could be seen easing out, nosing up to the lure, then smashing it with a vengeance. In productive areas, almost every log and rock held a fish.
Like other topwater lures, poppers and chuggers generally produce best during summer's low-light hours or overcast conditions. But following this generalization too closely can cause you to miss a good topwater bite.
THE PROPER POPPER
Poppers built for bass range in size from Rebel's 1/8-ounce P50 Pop-R and Lucky Craft's 3/16-ounce Bevy Popper that barely stretch two inches, to Storm's 4 1/2-inch 7/8-ounce Big Bug and the 1-ounce Yo-Zuri Mag Popper. Size matters but in ways you may not have considered.
Size: If you've spent much time pitching poppers, you've surely caught numbers of largemouth, spotted, and smallmouth bass whose length barely exceeds that of the bait. Bluegills, too, will nip a popper, as if it were an overgrown grasshopper. Poppers get the attention of fish in shallow water and those holding near the surface over greater depths.
Their spitting and blooping, and quivering at rest mimic the most vulnerable prey a bass can find. The helpless looking bait, pinned against the surface, begs to be eaten with each pop or blip. And in the tiny brain of our finny adversary, a big splash sometimes is more attractive than a little one, particularly if big active bass are in the vicinity. As a rule, the bigger the popper, the larger the average size of bass caught on it. But not always. Midsize poppers, from about 1/4 to 3/8 ounce cover most situations.
Mouth Shape: The key to a popper, of course, is its concave mouth that catches water and causes surface commotion. The depth of cupping, angle of the cup, and sharpness of the edge determine to a large extent whether the bait makes a bloop or boil, a quiet spit, or some other combination of commotions. These actions, of course, depend as well on the retrieve. The shape of the lure's mouth also affects to what extent the bait will walk back and forth in a walk-the-dog pattern during a steady snapping retrieve.
Slow Retrieves (Bloopin'): Original instructions in the Hula Popper box recommend casting the bait, then letting it sit till the ripples subside, then giving it a pop and repeating the procedure until the bait moves past a high-percentage area. That's the way anglers started fishing the first Pop-R, and this retrieve can be deadly for all species of black bass.
Where bass hold in thick weedbeds or under wood cover, the splash down and sharp bloops let them know something's there. The surface commotion suggests a small fish in its death throes, or maybe a frog hopping off a lily pad. Splashes, too, can stimulate bass to feed, as they think another fish has snatched a prey from the surface.
These cues may cause bass to approach cautiously or sometimes to zoom in on a lure for a closer look. A subtle twitch may be the final trigger for a strike. Or the skirted tail quivering in current can motivate an aggressive attack.
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At night, slow intermittent retrieves give bass the opportunity to approach the lure and then strike. Bass may strike but miss fast-moving baits, especially if they move erratically.
When fished over deep water, for example along the edge of a bluff bank, a loud bloop summons fish from below, as well as from cover. I've learned that Mexican bass fancy a mega bloop-and-pause retrieve. After watching my fast-spitting retrieve along the edge of a cliff that dropped fast into 30 feet of water, my guide Arturo approached the bow and beckoned for me to hand over my rod.
He cast and began savagely blooping the lure, letting it settle between pulls. I followed his advice and more than doubled my topwater strikes on that trip and subsequent ones. These semitropical largemouths, with their aggressive strikes and awesome pulling power, have some of the savage tendencies of those jungle marauders, the peacock bass.
Fast Retrieves (Spittin'): Another key retrieve for poppers is the spittin' skittering action that's become standard for summertime fishing on shad- filled reservoirs. Rick Clunn's introduction to this action came more than 20 years ago as he guided a client on Lake Conroe. The man worked his Pop-R frantically fast, the bait spitting water and bobbing unpredictably from side to side.
At first amused, Clunn was soon impressed as bass attacked the bait all day. Later, Clunn experimented with the 1/4-ounce bait and did a bit of filing and sanding to produce the secret bait he used to win well over $100,000. Many modern poppers, including most of the Japanese editions, are designed more for spitting than popping. The mouth is moderate size, and the lower lip is considerably shorter than the upper lip, and its leading edges are sharp.
But versatile topwater anglers should view retrieves as a continuum of speeds and actions between the extremes of a fast spit and a bloop-and-die cadence. On a given day, a special surface dance can make a major difference in the bait's attraction. While it's good to have a few time-tested retrieves that need no concentration to execute, breaking the mold can pay dividends.
Rod Choice: With a bloop-and-pause retrieve, rod position isn't critical, so anglers can select rod lengths and actions according to personal preference and fishing situation. With experience, you'll learn the best angle to hold the rod, based on the lure's characteristics and its distance from the boat or shore. In general, the rod should be gradually lowered as the lure approaches.
Match rod action and line strength to lure size, cover conditions, and potential size of bass. For tough-battling potentially monstrous Mexican bass or giant Floridas, heavy-action trigger sticks with abrasion-resistant mono or superbraid lines are the ticket. On heavy tackle, bigger, heavier poppers cast farther and tend to attract the biggest bass. But make sure the hooks don't bend under the strain. Some of the super-sharp fine-gauge Japanese hooks must be changed for this application.
Night fishing, too, calls for stout equipment as outsize bass roam open pockets in vegetation or maraud along breaklines to flush preyfish from cover. Their first reaction to your hookset is to return to the densest cover around, and you must stop that initial run or lose most of the big ones.
Skittering a popper is best accomplished by repeatedly snapping the rod toward the water, in much the same retrieve used for walking a Zara Spook. Several models are shaped and balanced to walk in a perfect left-right cadence, while others are less predictable. For such retrieves, a shorter (5 1/2- to 6 1/2-foot) rod provides the best snapping action. Precise length depends on the angler's height and the height of the boat's deck above the water. Fishing, for example, from a johnboat requires the shortest rod because your feet may be below water level. But in the bow of a large multispecies boat, a much longer rod works well.
For the fastest retrieves, tie directly to the eye of the popper. Using a snap, split ring, or loop knot gives the bait more freedom of movement, which gives a walking bait more lateral movement.
Line Considerations: In fishing poppers, match line to lure style, as well as to lure weight and rod power. Finesse poppers like Lucky Craft's Bevy Popper or the smallest Pop-R perform best with lighter line (6- to 10-pound test). Larger-diameter lines (12- to 17-pound test) work fine for most poppers from 1/4- to 3/8-ounce.
Monofilament sinks, but larger-diameter lines remain on the surface more readily because of their greater water resistance. As a result, many anglers like to fish poppers on heavy monofilament (17- to 20-pound test), particularly over thick vegetation or around timber. One trick is to apply wax to the last 3 or 4 feet of line, which makes it buoyant.
Lines of Spectra fiber also float, including "superbraids" like SpiderWire, Berkley FireLine, SpiderWire Fusion, and Bass Pro Shops Nitro. These lines keep the nose of poppers floating high for a stronger spitting action. In ultraclear water where bass may get too good a look at the optically dense braided lines, use a 3-foot fluorocarbon leader at the terminal end for minimal visibility and excellent lure action.
When using low-stretch and no-stretch braids, though, the adage about not setting the hook until you feel the weight of a fish is particularly true. And fish these lines on lighter-action rods than you'd use with monofilament, to avoid bending hooks or tearing them from the fish's mouth.
Fine-Tuning: Whatever the fishing situation, try to read the position and disposition of the bass. A certain retrieve may work best at first light but strikes dwindle as the sun rises. Often, changing the cadence or speed of the retrieve will renew the bite. Colors, too, can make a difference.
When fine-tuning lure action, experiment with different models of popper. While many look almost identical, nearly all have a slightly different action when retrieved a particular way. It's not unusual for two experienced anglers to enjoy varying success with poppers, even while sharing a boat.
Not long ago, I considered myself fully equipped for popper fishing, with a selection of about a dozen lures. After fishing this category of topwater baits extensively over the last three years, I have several tackle boxes containing no other lure, much as I do with diving baits. I have a smallmouth selection for rivers and lakes, one for summertime largemouths, and another for night fishing and lunker hunting. Some overlap in lure models occurs, but I select colors and sizes for each application.
The more you fish poppers, the more you'll learn about this fascinating category of lures. Whether you count your poppers by the bait or the boxful, count on catching bass and having a blast doing it.